These days, a conservative expressing support for the idea that racial inequality still plays a significant-enough role in society that we need policy remedies to address it may be considered politically suicidal.
But Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the lone black Republican in the U.S. Senate, has endorsed a potential compromise for addressing racial inequities in hiring and promotion. He’s been able to convince some conservative colleagues to join him, potentially marking a major turning point in the affirmative action debate.
Scott recently introduced Senate Res. 511. This could be one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation in recent years.
The bill seeks to create a version of football’s Rooney Rule in corporate America. Named after Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, the Rooney Rule was implemented in the NFL in 2003 and requires teams to interview minorities for leadership positions, including head coaching jobs. The result is that more diverse candidates are considered, without there technically being affirmative action requirements in hiring. You might call it “affirmative action lite” – something particularly noteworthy as recent court cases on affirmative action in higher education have stoked divisions over the issue.
Bob Johnson, founder of BET and one of the planet’s first black billionaires, has been pushing for what he calls the RLJ Rule (named for his initials), which would apply the Rooney Rule’s approach to the corporate world, and Scott’s bill endorses language Johnson proposed.
Noting that “according to Crist-Kolder Associates as cited in the Wall Street Journal, at the top 668 companies in the United States, only 27 Chief Financial Officers are African-American, Hispanic, or of Asian descent,” the bill “encourages companies to voluntarily establish a best practices policy to identify minority candidates and minority vendors by implementing a plan to interview a minimum of 2 qualified minority candidates for managerial openings at the director level and above and to interview at least 2 qualified minority businesses before approving a vendor contract.”
In addition to Sen. Scott, the proposed bill has found another surprising ally in Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Paul has had a complicated public image when it comes to policy discussions related to race. On the one hand, he recently drew applause from civil rights activists for supporting restoration of voting rights for nonviolent convicted felons, an issue disproportionately affecting minorities. On the other, he infamously waffled on his feelings about the Civil Rights Act, one of the most important pieces of legislation in the history of the pursuit of equal rights in America.
Conservative support of the Rooney Rule is both surprising and refreshing. At a time in which Congress is more divided and gridlocked than ever before, the fact that a potential bipartisan solution may have been found to one of America’s most divisive issues is extraordinary.
President Barack Obama’s election was certainly a watershed moment for black Americans, and for America. But while for some his election signaled an end to America’s long-standing racial woes, for others his election simply signaled that fewer people would feel the need to admit that such woes still exist. The fact that conservative senators are supporting the RLJ Rule is a testament to the fact that even they understand that as far as our nation may have come on race, we still have further to go on racial inequality.